The Human Costs of Building a ‘World-Class’ City

In Advance of the G20 Summit, New Delhi Has Demolished Neighborhoods and Displaced Thousands

Ahead of this year’s G20 summit, government efforts to “polish” New Delhi benefit the rich more than the working and poor classes, and especially harm the people who built the city, researchers Ankush Pal and Anubhav Kashyap argue. Above, laborers take a lunch break near a construction site. Courtesy of AP Newsroom.

On a hot summer day in New Delhi, a young resident of the posh area of Greater Kailash looked down from the window of his air-conditioned room.

“I don’t know how people tend to drink lemonade from these carts—it’s so unhygienic,” he said, referring to nimbu paani, a popular tart salty-sweet drink often served in earthen pots. He added that the street vendors’ carts were a nuisance for him when he went out for a drive in his luxury car.

In recent decades, diverse political parties, corporations, and elite citizens have shared a common goal of remaking New Delhi into a “world-class” city. They envision skyscrapers and highways populated by residents whose consumption habits mirror those of citizens of high-income countries. Their efforts are referred to as “beautification” in popular parlance, but they ignore entire communities—entire worlds—on the ground.

Rather than improving life in the city for everyone, the beautification projects funnel public resources into creating a cosmopolitan bubble for a few.

One of the major engines of this so-called beautification is international events. With each high-profile event, government at all levels suspends normal development and planning to focus energy and public money on the international visitors and local elite.

This week, New Delhi will host the G20 summit, the annual gathering of the “Group of Twenty” national leaders meeting to discuss opportunities for economic and political cooperation. It will be held at the modernist Bharat Mandapam, and its theme borrows from a Sanskrit text: “One Earth. One Family. One Future.”

In advance of the G20 summit, India’s federal and state governments have made active efforts to remove signs of “backwardness” in the city to present a “polished” image to the visitors. Their actions have ranged from relocating beggars to sites where their existence will be less visible, and therefore less of a “nuisance” for upper-class and upper-caste urban commuters. These eviction drives have targeted the city’s unhoused trans community and have demolished informal neighborhoods without prior notice or offers of alternative housing—a direct violation of Indian eviction law.

In advance of the G20 summit, India’s federal and state governments have made active efforts to remove signs of “backwardness” in the city to present a “polished” image to the visitors.

One domestic worker told us about her experience with one of the eviction drives in May 2023. She and her husband, a factory worker, had built a two-room brick house in the Tughlakabad area. When the eviction drive began, she was not at home and only learned of it from her neighbors. “I had to rush home at around 12:30 pm, but by the time I came back, it had already been razed to the ground. We would have left with our belongings had the government informed us of the date. Now, I don’t know what to do or where to go,” she said. Now, the couple and their two children are among some 2,000 people rendered homeless on that day.

These actions are repeating those taken in advance of past international events. Delhi previously hosted 1982’s Asian Games and the 2010 Commonwealth Games. While the Asian Games gave Delhi a much-needed infrastructural upheaval, it happened at the cost of the thousands of migrant workers who sold their rural lands to seek work in the nation’s capital. Similarly, though the build up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games gave Delhi its much-appreciated Metro transit system, the Games also claimed the houses of around 250,000 people through evictions on lands marked for infrastructure.

Although the figures for the G20 summit aren’t out yet, thousands of people have already lost their homes and thousands more are sure to suffer, rendered homeless in a city with a burning housing problem; women, infants, and older people alike.

In addition to the violence of eviction, the suspension of normal urban planning operations also comes at a cost for the working class. While the construction and redevelopment are justified by appeals to beautification and development, their investment is centered in the upper-middle class and elite neighborhoods to the neglect of other areas.

We asked a resident of the market complex and residential area Zakir Nagar in north Okhla, why, in his view, there has not been an effort to develop his neighborhood in the same way there has been with other market complexes in the city. He replied that there could be little to no development in the pockets of land on the banks of the Yamuna River like his because the city government has never formalized the area’s unplanned urban settlements. Because of that, Okhla, which lies around 10 kilometers from the main venue of the G20 summit, stands in stark contrast to New Delhi’s global city aspirations, greeting visitors with potholed roads and heaps of garbage—an unplanned, unsanctioned, un-beautified zone of the aspiring world-class city.

While lower-class Delhi residents are displaced, upper-class residents see the beautification processes as beneficial to the city. “I believe these development projects are good because they make the city look refined,” said the aforementioned resident of Greater Kailash. “We cannot have things both ways: development and ensuring everyone in the city gets a place.” But while he complained about how hawkers hogged space on the roads, he didn’t feel the same way about how he and his neighbors took up space parking their cars on sidewalks.

Governmental authorities condone this sense of entitlement. They often refuse to act when dealing with the elite but move quickly when it comes to the underprivileged. In both processes, they skirt legal processes. India’s Supreme Court noted in 2016 that orders that adversely affect the rich are often delayed in their implementation. Former Supreme Court Justice Madan Lokur remarked, “The Law is different for the poor and the rich.”

Famously, the red walls of Shahjahanabad, the former imperial capital of the Mughal empire, have a splash of the blood of the laborers that worked on them. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say the same of the Delhi of today. Delhi has been built, developed, and re-developed with the blood and sweat of the very people it was supposed to serve as a home for. And there are reminders of their sacrifice everywhere.

As we beautify cities—dressing them up for a single event in vanity projects meant to attract and impress fair-weather foreigners—we need to be asking ourselves whether “world-class cities” live up to their moniker if they are not equitable and inclusive for all residents. If we are willing to let ourselves be blinded by the dazzle of shiny modifications and ignore everything that has been bulldozed in the wake of it, we are hardly engaging with the world at all.

Ankush Pal is a sociology student at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. His work has been published by EPW, Indian Express, Outlook, and more.

Anubhav Kashyap is a sociology student at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. He has published articles on the intersections of caste, class, gender, and power.
PRIMARY EDITOR: Caroline Tracey | SECONDARY EDITOR: Talib Jabbar


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